London has a disproportionate number of writers compared to the rest of the nation. Or so we are told. Why is this? Is it the wonderful artistic opportunities afforded by this great capital of money, people and culture? Or is it the fact that there are more opportunities here to supplement their meagre royalty cheques with alternate interesting work? Quite often writers are here teaching, and teaching those who aspire to join their ranks, or wish at least to spend some time visiting. As a consequence London is a great place to learn the art of writing from those who know the craft best.
The writing course is done around the City; online, in universities, private church hall meetings, people’s homes and institutions such as the one I work at, City Lit. They provide a valuable resource to would be writers to hone and develop their writing skills, whether for children or adults.
Do they provide a valuable resource? The truth of the matter is that it depends. It depends on the personality of the writer, whether they feel comfortable sharing their work in an environment where people may make judgements about their work that they may not agree with. Whether as a student they are ready to understand the true value of constructive criticism. The Creative Writing environment is firstly one of trust, and a budding writer should investigate carefully those who provide these courses.
But what of the teacher? A skilled creative writing teacher firstly needs to understand the writing genre that they teach and also the art of teaching itself. Feedback is the maker and breaker of a great teacher. It is easy as a teacher to be too negative or too positive about a student’s work. Finding the happy medium takes time and skill. It also takes skill not to impose your own style, prejudices and influences on the writing of a student. If any of those things go wrong, the value of the programme may be significantly eroded. So when it all comes together the impact on the student may be transformational.
For many writers learning the craft , maturing, takes time. It is never quick, but the creative writing class or workshop process, if it works for you, can accelerate that learning dramatically. It may take years for a beginner writer to learn to stop misusing adverbs, or the limitations of the stream of consciousness; a writing course could truncate that time to weeks. But it isn’t just about pitfalls. It is also about growth. Learning to find your voice and producing a style all of your own is key to writing successfully, and the gentle shaping encouragement of a writer/teacher can get you there much quicker than struggling on your own. But if you really think about it all writers speak to others for feedback. This is often to people they trust including partners, friends and parents. Though for obvious reasons this may not be impartial. A class can give you impartial perspectives quickly, and done well in a controlled and constructive manner.
Writing is a pleasure that more and more people are engaging with at every level. The great explosion of online self publishing has brought more people to the conclusion that they can have a go. And on occasion if they are honest it can point out the need to improve. Publication is a great thing, but it is also a little scary. You are exposing yourself to the wider reading world, and let’s not forget the critics. Ensuring that your writing is the best it can be is always worth doing before you take the plunge, push the magic button and go into the market place.
Not all writing courses are for fiction. There is plenty of demand for Non-Fiction whether it is cookery or biography. Knowledge doesn’t make a writer; skills do and you may have never had a proper opportunity to develop them to do justice to your knowledge and abilities elsewhere.
There are journalism courses too. Journalism is a rapidly changing environment with the stranglehold of print shattered by the internet. What was once the preserve of the newspaper man is now open to all kinds of people with a story to tell. A great democratisation of writing opportunities mean that the vast majority of us one way or another write. Whether its blogs, websites or social media no one wants to be a twit on Twitter. Writing courses now cater for the whole range and they are not going to go away. The written word changes with new mediums and the range of writing programmes grow to meet these changes. It is becoming a feature of the age. The opportunities for writers grow as the platforms for generating content expands, and the truth is no matter how snazzy the technology, content is king. London is in a unique place to service this expanding environment. Long may it stay so!
Mark Isherwood is The Head of Creative and Non-Fiction Writing at the City Lit.